It has been said that the darkest hour is just before dawn. These words have been used across the ages to suggest that sometimes when things are going really badly actually there are forces in play that are changing the situation.
For the optimists this is the moment where events are already turning in the right direction but it is too early to spot the patterns with any clarity. The optimists just sense that a turning point has been reached. Numerous examples exist in warfare from World War Two, such as the Battle of Alamein, to the Al Anbar arising in Iraq in 2007-2008 which saw Al Qaeda evicted from its Sunni heartland – arguably starting a sequence of events that led to the creation of the so-called Islamic State.
In today’s world with the menace of so-called Islamic State being so vividly illustrated by the attack in Orlando that claimed 49 lives and the death of a policeman and his wife in horrific circumstances in Paris any indication that the threat from Islamic State has peaked would be welcome. It would show the west is finally making some kind of progress against this pernicious threat.
On the surface the indications that are arising from the latest analysis of terror attacks around the world provide some cause for optimism. The inexorable rise of terrorist attacks around the world which had previously peaked about a year after the Arab Spring before briefly going backwards for a few months seems to have been halted. Whereas the monthly figures seemed on course to pass 2000 attacks a month in April and May the actual figure was marginally level at around 1800 attacks.
This could be a brief plateau before the next rise as so-called Islamic State opens new fronts in its global attempts to foster insurrection and strife or it could be a genuine early sign that the international community is having an impact on the ability of so-called Islamic State to continue to build its vision of a caliphate. In Libya, Iraq and Syria Islamic State is on the metaphorical back-foot.
With the Iraqi Army battling to secure Falluja before turning its sights on the Islamic State’s key city of Mosul later in the year a turning point in Iraq does seem to be happening. In Libya Islamic State’s attempt to re-create a new Wilayah (administrative sub-division of the caliphate) is on hold as the Libyan forces recognised by the west have gained the upper hand. In Nigeria Boko Haram, arguably Islamic States most high profile defector from Al Qaeda, is also on the run and now operating in Cameroon and in areas near to Lake Chad.
Stories emerging from both Syria and Iraq about new tax regimes being imposed by Islamic State have some grounding in truth. By taking such measures the group are hardly likely to endear themselves to the wider public who vision of a pure caliphate will now be being tested. In 2007-2008 similar forces were at work when the Anbar arising starting to shift the tectonic plates of the insurgency away from Al Qaeda.
These set-backs are materially affecting Islamic States ability to spread its vision of a caliphate. But it does not mean that we can start to think about calling time on this threat. Far from it. So-called Islamic State has proven itself to be robust, surviving the loss of key commanders and sources of income. It has also started to spread its influence into new areas such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaya and Indonesia. As it comes under increasing pressure in the Middle East it seems set to try and re-bound in South East Asia. In Afghanistan the recent deaths of fourteen ex-Gurkhas in an attack on a bus in Kabul on 20 June have also been claimed by Islamic State.
If so-called Islamic State is under pressure what might happen next? Can we start to relax our vigilance in the United Kingdom? Might the Home Secretary soon be announcing a reduction in the threat level? The answer to these questions sadly has to be no. Even the optimists have to grasp this simple point. So-called Islamic State are not about to go quietly into the night.
While progress is clearly being made the recent attacks in France and America and the timely interruption of a plan to attack the EURO-2016 football championships shows that as Islamic State is pressurised so it will lash out against those it sees as trying to bring about its demise. While France is clearly in the cross-wires of the group we in the United Kingdom are also a significant part of the international effort to see the group’s capabilities diminished. The threat to the United Kingdom is therefore very real.
But is this the darkest hour just before dawn? Sadly, while it would be great to suggest that the recent plateauing of attacks is an indicator of a positive change in the overall landscape the patterns so far simply suggest that it is a pause before the next onslaught commences. How might that appear is quite frankly anyone’s guess. But it is possible to suggest one pathway.
In Iraq on many occasions during the insurgency as the coalition made progress so terrorists groups became increasingly pragmatic. Despite their ethnic and ideological divides the simple principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ applied. Groups that would normally not even consider working together would find ways to cooperate.
This model is one that it is possible to suggest might be emerging. As the number of terrorist attacks plateau’s so-called Islamic State – their erstwhile enemies Al Qaeda – and the Taliban all appear to be massing in Afghanistan. If Al Qaeda were the first wave, and so-called Islamic State the second, why not a coalition of terrorist groups as the third?
Herein lies a possible trajectory of international terrorism. If the international community is creating coalitions of the willing to try and defeat Islamic State wherever it has gained a foothold, why not a coalition of terrorist groups to fight back against that threat to their existence? While it may sound frightening it could be that we have yet to see the darkest hour and that dawn in the fight against international terrorism is not even on the horizon.